To love a land

From head to heart in 30 years.

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A strange thing happened on my way past Lake Taupō. I was returning to Auckland from the inaugural Blackball Readers and Writers Festival, where I had been talking about West Coast poet Leicester Kyle.

I took a side road that leads to the lake—my usual stop to stretch the legs, brew a coffee and take a snooze before driving the last few hours back to the city.

I walked to the water’s edge. The air was still, and the lake shining as metal. Tiny wavelets lapped the pumice and grit of the shore. An angler was casting metronomically for trout.

I looked out at the water and the sacred burial island lying like a green pāua on the shimmering blue, and spoke aloud the lake’s name: Taupō-nui-a-Tia, the great cloak of Tia.

Unaccountably, tears filled my eyes, and I wondered why. They seemed to be tears of recognition and belonging, triggered by something as simple as voicing a name. I imagine that tangata whenua of this lake district feel these emotions all the time. But here was I, a Pākehā, not from around here, experiencing a welling up of tenderness for a place I know only in passing, but enough to feel a connection to.

A few hours earlier, I had felt a similar emotion when walking through a grove of podocarps next to State Highway 1 just south of Hunterville. I had seen the sign to Bruce Park Scenic Reserve on several road trips, but this was the first time I had stopped to investigate.

A path led through flowering grasses and scattered native and exotic trees to a 30-hectare tract of forest. As I entered that cool green enclave, I was instantly in a world of soaring kahikatea, mataī and rimu, supplejack vines in wild moss-coated tangles, kererū flying noisily overhead and shining cuckoos singing their hearts out.

The trail took me to a concrete memorial, erected in 1924 to honour Robert Cunningham Bruce, the settler and former member of Parliament who saved this remnant from the saw. “This park is given to the people of New Zealand and to the residents of this district in particular, in order that they may have ever before them a beautiful specimen of New Zealand forest life,” reads the plaque.

That hope has been realised; it is a singularly beautiful specimen. At that moment, I was the only human there to enjoy it, and despite the drone of cars and trucks a few hundred metres away on the highway, and a train on the Main Trunk Line, the place seemed to be under a magic spell. I took each step with delicacy and deliberation, not wanting to snap a single twig in case that would break the enchantment.

I never used to be like this: emoting over landscapes. Something changed. I attribute it to 30 years with New Zealand Geographic—a steady accumulation of awareness and response to what makes this land unique, and what makes it home.

But that’s probably too simple an explanation. When publisher John Woods and I launched the magazine in December 1988, our focus was on geographical knowledge. We called the magazine ‘the journal of New Zealand’, to emphasise academic thoroughness and accuracy. As editor, I took a no-fact-goes-unnoticed approach to story subjects. How much light, exactly, does a glow-worm emit?

Only later—particularly through exposure to indigenous ways of relating to places as beings, rather than entities—did intellectual fascination and discovery start to be matched by emotional connection and reverence. It was then that I could stand on the lip of the Denniston escarpment—that misty sandstone Stonehenge north of Westport—and understand what Leicester Kyle meant when he wrote: “As soon as you stand here you know it: all roads end here and somewhere else begins.”

Lately I’ve been thinking—and talking—about a painting by Colin McCahon, one of his Northland Panels, on which he inscribed the words: “A landscape with too few lovers.” That line captures me, for it seems to describe the too mechanistic, too development-centred, too utilitarian view of the world that dominates the Western mind: a transactional approach to place, instead of a relational one. A landscape for investors, not for lovers.

McCahon believed his work as a painter included opening people’s eyes to the possibility of a relationship with the land. “I saw something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to its people,” he wrote. “Not yet understood or communicated, not even really yet invented. My work has largely been to communicate this vision and to invent the way to see it.”

McCahon could show the way because he had been there himself. His “too few lovers” painting is one of eight responses to the landscapes of the Far North, which he painted in 1958. He said he couldn’t talk about the north; he loved it too much. “Up there is like standing on a moon,” he wrote about Cape Rēinga. “Way down below is the sea and the edge of the world and the beach running to nothing and to Te Rerenga Wairua—and nothing, nothing more—all sculpted by wind and rain, it’s there you bury your heart, and as it goes deeper into the land you can only follow. It’s a painful love, loving a land, it takes a long time.”

Thirty years is a start. (And I’m reminded that we paid tribute to Te Rerenga Wairua, the place McCahon buried his heart, almost exactly 30 years ago, in our second issue.)

The land keeps calling, and I intend to keep answering. In the stories I write. In my fortnightly talks on the radio. And occasionally, by shedding tears beside a lake.

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